As a father of two, wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan knows how it feels to be on the night shift with a newborn baby.
But having to be a surrogate parent to six orphaned grizzly bear cubs was an experience like no other.
“I tried to be their mummy bear as best as I could but it was a reminder of why we stopped at two children ourselves,” Gordon says.
“I’d never held a bear cub before, it was just very surreal. What became normal to us, working with them and feeding them, cleaning them up day in day out, it’s not until I look at a photograph I realise that was just such an amazing opportunity, to be so hands on and to be of use to a vulnerable animal.”
Gordon took on the role of mummy bear deep in the forests of Russia at a sanctuary run by the Pazhetnov family for next week’s BBC documentary Grizzly Bear Cubs And Me.
These incredible exclusive pictures show how Gordon tended to the cubs, bathing them and feeding them just like their mother bear would.
And there’s a lot of cleaning up involved, as the hungry cubs would dive into a bowl full of porridge head first, slurping up every drop.
Not getting attached to the cubs is a task much easier said than done.
Gordon, 46, says: “Your natural instinct is to give them everything they’d get from mother, it’s not just about being fed, cleaned, but it’s about giving them that physical comfort.
I thought at first I’d just give them a cuddle, but that’s not really how it works. You have to have as detached a relationship as possible.
“It’s best for them that they’re not bonded to people. It’s not like having a human baby where you’d spend more time cuddling it than feeding it.
“I would pretty much pick them up, feed them, then put them down.
“And I struggled with that a bit because you just naturally want to comfort them.”
While the cubs might look like sweet little teddies, the noise they make when they’re weeks old is piercing.
Gordon says: “The documentary makes you want to rush out and buy a little teddy bear! But those night feeds with six screaming baby bears was quite demanding. They look so sweet and cuddly, but they sounded like a velociraptor. The poor sound man had partly wished he never came on this trip! We were having to speak in hushed voices and these bears are making this God-awful noise.”
Gordon’s two children are in their teens and he wouldn’t turn back the clock to their bottle-feeding days. “The kids are 13 and 15 now, so there is less screaming luckily,” he laughs.
“I think the sound of a baby crying equally damages your ears and human babies have still got the edge on the ear-damaging scale over bear cubs.”
For 25 years the Pazhetnovs have devoted their lives to rescuing orphaned bears.
Gordon says: “In other years the Pazhetnovs had as many as 21 cubs in the one go.
“I couldn’t imagine how demanding that would be, if you have 21 very hungry, very demanding bear cubs.
“This family are incredible, they work it in shifts between them.”
Gordon helped to raise three sets of brothers who were rescued at just five weeks old.
Slava and Pasha’s mother was suspected to have been killed by poachers, Zhenya and Zhora’s was scared away by loggers, a huge issue in rural Russia, and Toyla and Tyoma were left on the doorstep of a vet’s.
Once the cubs were a few months old, Gordon stopped being a hands-on mum and allowed the bears to fend for themselves.
He explains: “Normally as I film wildlife, I get closer and closer to the animals over time, but with orphaned grizzlies I did the exact opposite.
“I always knew as the bears progressed we would have to put more and more distance between us and them. We kept our involvement with them to the absolute minimum.”
In heartwarming scenes, viewers will see four of the cubs step out into the woods for the first time from a makeshift den. But for Slava and Pasha, Gordon and the Pazhetnovs grew concerned because they weren’t developing as well as the others.
Pasha was unable to stand on his hind legs and developed wounds on his knees from sliding across the floor.
Witnessing their struggle was painful for their surrogate mother.
“The difference between Pasha and Slava and the others, it felt as though a gulf opened up between them,” Gordon says.
“You worry there’s something you’ve done wrong or something you’ve missed. They all initially were eating well and showing the proper signs of development.
“It really jeopardised their chance of getting back into the wild, if they don’t develop in the way that they need to, that’s it, it’s over. They’ll spend the rest of their days in an enclosure.”
Luckily, with support from Gordon and the Pazhetnovs, the two bears slowly grew strong enough to join their brothers in the outdoor den.
The transformation from week-old cubs to nearly year olds was remarkable. Gordon says: “It’s really difficult to imagine the cubs being independent when they can’t walk, they’re being bottle fed.
“But from what I’ve seen, I’ve learnt, with a helping hand as cubs, they do all the hard work themselves. They grow in size and confidence, those natural instincts they have will allow them to survive in the wild.”
Once ready for the world, Gordon watched with pride as his cubs scurried off into the woods.
He says: “It’s not quite the same as waving your children off to college, because they come back, but I just felt really happy to know that they were where they should be.
“You see them rushing off, a couple of them didn’t look back, but a couple stopped and looked back at us and then they went off into the forest. I just felt, job done.”
The two-part special Grizzly Bear Cubs And Me is on December 18 and 19 on BBC Two at 9pm.
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